Introduction to Acedia
Acedia. There is a word that perhaps many of us have never heard before and therefore never thought about. In English the best translation is, “despondency”. There are remnants of it as one of the ‘seven deadly sins’ of Western Christianity (although this list never gained currency in Orthodoxy but its root is from the 8 generic thoughts of Evagrius Pontus) – sloth-became substituted for it at some point in Latin speaking history. Yet sloth is not nearly broad enough a concept to encapsulate all that is meant by acedia.
Evagrius Ponticus (345-399), one of the students of St. Macarius the Great, also served under St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Basil the Great. It is to Evagrius that we turn if we wish to know more of despondency, which we may all be afflicted by. You will know the demon of acedia (despondency) has come to visit you if you find yourself aimless, bored of everything in front of you, agitated at your present circumstance, jumping from thing to thing and finding that boredom or agitation only growing with each new distraction. Moving about and jumping from one thing to another we find ourselves doing more and accomplishing less. The monastics knew this soul-crushing affliction all too well in the arid Egyptian deserts where the unbearably hot sun provided much opportunity for acedia to come knocking. Evagrius gives the vivid description of Acedia,
“The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon (cf. Ps. 90: 6), is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk about the fourth hour [viz. 10 a.m.] and besieges his soul until the eighth hour [2 p.m.]. First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly towards the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from the ninth hour [3 p.m.], to look this way and that lest one of the brothers [come knocking]… And further, he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labour, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him. And should there be someone during those days who has offended the monk, this too the demon uses to add further to his dislike (of the place). He leads him on to a desire for other places where he can easily find the wherewithal to meet his needs and pursue a trade that is easier and more productive; he adds that pleasing the Lord is not a question of being in a particular place: for scripture says that the divinity can be worshipped everywhere (cf. John 4: 21—4). He joins to these suggestions the memory of his close relations and of his former life; he depicts for him the long course of his lifetime, while bringing the burdens of asceticism before his eyes; and, as the saying has it, he deploys every device in order to have the monk leave his cell and flee the stadium. No other demon follows immediately after this one: a state of peace and ineffable joy ensues in the soul after this struggle.” Evagrius, Praktikos, 12. Translation from; Sinkewicz, Robert E. Evagrius of Pontus: the Greek ascetic corpus. OUP Oxford, 2006. P. 99
With this imagery, Evagrius illustrates how the monk’s mind flits from thought to thought, paralyzing one’s mind and body – the day seems endless and the monk is listlessly preoccupied by the movement of the sun (i.e. watching the ‘clock’).
Similarly, we may be assailed by acedia in a variety of ways and in a variety of occupations. It may strike during the long lulls in our work day, when, checking the time we are dismayed that almost no time has elapsed since we last checked. Or when we have time for leisure, we become agitated with the day and in our restlessness we find ourselves aimlessly scrolling through social media or uninterestedly re-watching episodes on Netflix (the proverbial binge-watching we fall to). Or perhaps the demands of family and home life – groceries, laundry, bill payments, etc – circle above our heads yet a paralysis of motivation halts our efforts.—. Significantly it is not simply boredom that ensnares us – but an agitated boredom. We even begin to speak of ‘killing time’ to end the misery of the present moment.
“Usually, when confronting the suspension of time and the void of boredom, the most classic strategy is to try to ‘kill time’ as we say. No doubt it is not insignificant that this idiomatic expression uses the verb ‘to kill’, which relates boredom to hatred. Now time is not killed; on the contrary, it is necessary to wed it, in other words, to cling to the present moment and to live it in all its spiritual intensity.” Nault, Dom Jean-Charles. The noonday devil: Acedia, the unnamed evil of our times. Ignatius Press, 2015. p. 126
The present moment is all we have and yet we go on trying to ‘kill it’, trying to ‘pass it by’ hoping that another moment will somehow visit us with greater joy. We are ‘there’ but we are not ‘present’ in this moment that is given to us by God. Evagrius says succinctly,
“Acedia is a simultaneous, long-lasting movement of anger and desire, whereby the former is angry with what is at hand, while the latter yearns for what is not present.” Evagrius, on Psalm 118.28
This hate of the moment gifted to me by God, in which I should present (in both senses of the word) myself, then invades the rest of our relationships, our work, our very lives. Kathleen Norris explains about acedia,
“At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning ‘to cry out,’ as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.” Norris, Kathleen. Acedia & me: A marriage, monks, and a writer’s life. Penguin, 2008. p. 4
It has simply become too hard, or perhaps too painful, to care. When this sets in then one can no longer sit to study, stand to pray, or attend to their marital responsibilities, amongst other things. Anyone who has been a student will find familiarity with the words of Evagrius,
“When he reads, the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings. Later, he closes the book and puts it under his head and falls asleep, but not a very deep sleep, for hunger then rouses his soul and has him show concern for its needs.” On the Eight Thoughts, 6, 15
Unfortunately this evil then penetrates our deepest relationships and gives us the feeling that novelty means improvement. If my marriage isn’t ‘as great as before’, well I best get out and find something new. If this new service I am involved in doesnt get me excited then maybe I need a new one. If this new prayer rule seems boring then I will look for another routine to follow. Even in our jobs we may begin to realize that we are unsettled and going from place to place and job to job. In marriage, I become disenchanted with the everyday self-sacrifice of married life and look to satisfaction from other things and unfortunately, other people. St. John Cassian describes the one suffering from acedia and their dislike of the brethren in the monastery,
“And when this [acedia] has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society; and he complains that he is cut off from spiritual gain, and is of no use in the place, as if he were one who, though he could govern others and be useful to a great number of people, yet was edifying none, nor profiting any one by his teaching and doctrine. He cries up distant monasteries and those which are a long way off, and describes such places as more profitable and better suited for salvation; and besides this he paints the dealings with the brethren there as sweet and full of spiritual life. On the other hand, he says that everything about him is rough, and not only that there is nothing edifying among the brethren who are stopping there, but also that even food for the body cannot be procured without great difficulty. Lastly he fancies that he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell (in which he is sure to die if he stops in it any longer) and takes himself off from thence as quickly as possible. Then the fifth or sixth hour brings him such bodily weariness and longing for food that he seems to himself worn out and wearied as if with a long journey, or some very heavy work, or as if he had put off taking food during a fast of two or three days. Then besides this he looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone. Then the disease suggests that he ought to show courteous and friendly hospitalities to the brethren, and pay visits to the sick, whether near at hand or far off. He talks too about some dutiful and religious offices; that those kinsfolk ought to be inquired after, and that he ought to go and see them oftener; that it would be a real work of piety to go more frequently to visit that religious woman, devoted to the service of God, who is deprived of all support of kindred; and that it would be a most excellent thing to get what is needful for her who is neglected and despised by her own kinsfolk; and that he ought piously to devote his time to these things instead of staying uselessly and with no profit in his cell.” St. John Cassian, Institutes, Book X, Chapter 2
If St. John Cassian states that the relationship between the brethren would not go unharmed then certainly our own marriages and friendships are not immune In our consumer society we have reduced everything, even our closest bonds, to what we can consume of them. Again Evagrius predicted this would happen and his comment is fleshed out by Norris. When we do not or seemingly cannot, attend to our everyday “mundane tasks” we cannot persist in those things that matter most,
“One wife is not enough for a man given to pleasure; a single cell is not enough for the monk given to acedia.” Evagrius, On the Eight Thoughts, 6, 13
“We may not think of prayer or manual labour as essential for our well-being, but ‘hatred for the place’, is a thoroughly modern condition. In a consumer culture we are advised to keep our options open, so that we are always free to grab the new, improved model when it appears. It is not easy for us to recognize acedia in ourselves, as it prompts us to see obligations to family, friends, and colleagues as impediments to that freedom. There are situations, as in the case of abusive relationships, when seeking a change is the right course of action. But often it is acedia that urges us for no good reason, to fantasize and brood over circumstances in which we will be affirmed and admired by more stimulating companions. Whatever the place of our commitment-a monastic cell, a faith community, a job, a marriage-well we are better off just walking away. If we have come along with the demon this far, Evagrius suggests, acedia will make our self-delusion seem divinely inspired, perhaps sanctioned. The demon of acedia, he writes, ‘goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere.” Norris, Kathleen. Acedia p. 29
And so we seek solace for our suffering in everything that is ‘new and novel’, not realizing that this fuels the very thing we are trying to do away with. Growing despondent in a relationship, we leave. Growing ‘cold’ at Church we ‘Church-hop’. Growing bored at prayer, we evade. Unwittingly we have been fanning the flames of despondency with our escapes and creating new and more fertile soil for it to grow. But, we tell ourselves, ‘I will go off to do a more important work’. Perhaps I will go to do a ‘more important’ work. Even with these thoughts we find another potential peril similar again to the monastics,
“A person afflicted with acedia proposes visiting the sick, but is fulfilling his own purpose.” Evagrius, On the Eight Thoughts, 6, 6
“A monk given to acedia is quick to undertake a service, but considers his own satisfaction to be a precept.” Evagrius, On the Eight Thoughts, 6, 7
One must be careful about his motives, it is possible that he only uses a particular service or a particular task or even visit the sick as a pretense to feed his despondency. Bunge points out that this is fed in great measure today by waves of social activism wherein we are constantly looking for the next case to solve,
“Restlessness changes into a busy, untiring activism and sees itself as the Christian virtue of brotherly love! But it is nothing more than an illusion, a dangerous self-deception. It is the illusion of a full calendar of appointments that blinds us to our inner emptiness. It is all the more dangerous as it serves so called high goals and is therefore unassailable. The longer this illusion continues, the more disastrous the consequences. The sudden end of the delusion, the dreadful awakening, inevitably comes sooner or later. One will either give up in desperation, dropping everything that up to then had ostensibly made up the content of life, or one will clutch at new and ever stronger doses of distraction.” Bunge, Despondency, 74.
Even here we see the penetrating tentacles of despondency which would convince us that we are, in fact, making the most of the present moment. We are actually evading the very tasks that need me now. My spouse needs a hand at home, my children need a better listener, my friends need a more interested friend, my Church needs a more cruciform Christian and all I can think to do is to save the world or feverishly answer questions in an online debate. We see the trap of despondency. A trap that our forbearers knew all too well.
Adam, Eve, Acedia
We are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve and have discussed this more than a few times before here (Genesis: The Book of Life, Genesis: The Book of Life and Death, etc). However, there may be more to the story than we realized, especially when it comes to the response of God to human sin. Starting from the temptation of Eve by the serpent we read,
“Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” Genesis 3.2-9
So we have this episode recorded and we notice the Scriptures preserve the detail that God comes to them in the cool of the day or in the afternoon. Perhaps we have seen the noonday demon strike. The first element we notice is that Eve wanders off alone. One wonders if this is reminiscent of the acedia (despondency) of our modern relationships where the tendency is to run from bond to bond looking ‘for a good fit’ as Evagrius has prophetically told us. She, for her part, encounters a seductive new interlocutor who tempts her to seize what is not hers. Perhaps, she thinks the grass really is greener on the other side.
Adam too is not in the place which God has given him to be in, next to his wife. He is not present and striving in the context within which God has put him. Furthermore, when given the fruit, he unquestioningly takes it -again emblematic of acedia (or lack of care). For what does it matter if this fruit is to life or to death, to God or the darkness? Acedia tells us that we not only don’t have to care, but that we shouldn’t care. Thus we see Adam respond to God as a true despondent would, as many of us respond to Him daily.
“Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ So he said, ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ And He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?’ Then the man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.’ And the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done? The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’… To the woman He said: ‘I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children’… To Adam He said, ‘Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: ‘Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3.9-19
God confronts and presents the human being with their own sin, their own undoing. As an archetypal despondent, Adam seeks any escape to blame anyone other than himself for his problems, running from responsibility. He blames his wife whom he had not been with when she was tempted. But this is what God brought them to each other for, to overcome the warfare in their union, drawing each other higher and higher towards God through sacrificial love. Instead, acedia dictates self-interested love and shirking of responsibility onto another. We have seen that acedia can drive the monastic to perform an act of ‘charity’ in visiting the sick, in reality only punctuating his restless boredom- a self interested act. Just as the monastics could be driven to visit the sick out of a self interested desire to soothe one’s boredom, acedia dictates Adam only attend to his own interests, the proverbial ‘lookin after number 1’. Eve, for her part, is asked and she shirks responsibility too. She has left her place with Adam and has been seduced by the prospect of novelty and self-interest. She blames the serpent. Again Norris summarizes nicely,
“Put on the spot, Adam tries to excuse himself by blaming Eve, and Eve then blames the serpent. Neither cares where the buck stops, as long as it rests with someone else. God responds to this display of sloth by sending the first people, who had been intended for the holy leisure of paradise, into a land where they must labour for their sustenance.” Norris, Acedia and Me, p113
Acedia has this as its response from God. First, God explains to them what their own actions have done to them: ‘Dust you are and to dust you shall return’. Dust cannot live of itself, it is dead, without animating force, and this is what the human being is when bereft of God. Then God explains what will happen as a result, which most of us read as ‘curses’. Yet, Gregory the Theologian explains,
“Then he was banished, all at once, because of his wickedness, from the tree of life and the Paradise and God; he was dressed in tunics of skin—coarse, mortal and rebellious flesh, perhaps. So this was the first thing he came to know: his own shame; and he hid himself from God. But even here he drew a profit of a kind: death, and an interruption to sin; so wickedness did not become immortal, and the penalty became a sign of love for humanity. That, I believe, is the way God punishes!” St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Chapter 12
For St. Gregory the Theologian, the sentence of God is one of compassion. So then what are we to make of the sentence read out to Adam and Eve regarding the toil ascribed to Adam and the pains ascribed to Eve? Let us start with Adam,
“Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground.”
Adam is essentially told that he will have to work hard as the condition of his life. This is the condition of mortality that he has plunged himself into, as opposed to the fruits he readily plucked from trees (Genesis: The Book of The Promise).
Interestingly, the tradition of the Church preserves for us the story of a saint who is confronted by acedia and is consoled and strengthened by the work given to him. St. Anthony of the desert is confronted one day by acedia and an angel reveals to him how he might overcome it.
“When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by acedia – despondency – , and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts will not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.” Sayings of The Desert Fathers, St. Antony, Sayings 1-2
Could God be giving Adam and Eve the path to salvation already through this ‘curse’? Is God saying and doing these things for the salvation of the human being? We too must pick up our burden, we must bear our cross, we must be present in the moment presented to us to overcome the demon of acedia. Were we to think that fleeing and evading the burdens in front us might ‘free us’ to seek God, we would be playing into the hands of the demons and subject ourselves to a greater slavery. When speaking about the cure for acedia, St. John Cassian records,
“When I was beginning my stay in the desert, and had said to Abbot Moses, the chief of all the saints, that I had been terribly troubled yesterday by an attack of acedia, and that I could only be freed from it by running at once to Abbot Paul, he said, “You have not freed yourself from it, but rather have given yourself up to it as its slave and subject. For the enemy will henceforth attack you more strongly as a deserter and runaway, since it has seen that you fled at once when overcome in the conflict: unless on a second occasion when you join battle with it you make up your mind not to dispel its attacks and heats for the moment by deserting your cell, or by the inactivity of sleep, but rather learn to triumph over it by endurance and conflict.” Whence it is proved by experience that a fit of acedia should not be evaded by running away from it, but overcome by resisting it.” St. John Cassian, Institutes, Book X, Chapter 25
We cannot escape our relationships when they become tough, we should not change jobs ‘just for a change’, we must not neglect our prayers when they become ‘tedious’. We must overcome this very temptation to run because otherwise we will simply become those who run and run, back and forth, and never settle in the here and now. To live in the present moment means to simultaneously recognize that we live for much more than this moment. If the Kingdom of Heaven is within us (cf. Lk 17.21) then we must live the Life of The Kingdom here and now so that I am accustomed to its dwelling when I have arrived there. It is this orientation to the full reality of the present moment that God draws Adam and Eve to in the next set of statements, this time to Eve,
“To the woman He said: ‘I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children’”
This text means so much more than the physical pains of childbearing. Eve, soon to be called the mother of life, is bringing forth children into a dead life. All humans are consigned to a life that they know will end in death and it is into this that Eve, and countless women after her, bring forth children into the world. This is why St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches,
“And once death had been mingled with human nature, deadness, in step with the successions of offspring to parents, made its way everywhere. Hence a dead form of existence enfolded us, since life itself was, in a certain sense, dying; for as soon as our life is deprived of immortality, it is a dead thing. For this reason, the One who is made known “in the midst between the two forms of life” (Hab 3:2) stands in between these two kinds of life, in order that by removal of the worse he may award the spoils of victory to the one that is undefiled. So just as by dying to the true life humanity fell instead into this dead form of existence, so too when it dies to this dead and animal life, it is redirected toward life eternal-and this stands as a certainty, that one cannot live the blessed life without having become dead to sin.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily XII on Song of Songs.
St. Cyril of Alexandria ties these things together, and shows their healing in Christ, in his commentary on the Wedding of Cana of Galilee,
“When a wedding feast is held (and this is clearly done with all reverence), the mother of the Saviour is there, and he himself is invited and comes with his disciples, though he comes to work miracles rather than to feast with them, and even more to sanctify the very beginning of human birth-I mean so far as it pertain to the flesh. It was fitting for the one who was recapitulating human nature itself and refashioning of the whole of it in a better condition not only to impart his blessing to those already called into existence but also to prepare his grace for those not yet born and to make holy their entrance into existence.
Consider a third reason as well. God said to the woman somewhere, ‘In pain you will bear children (Gen 3.16).’ How could we not need to be rescued from this curse as well? How else could we have escaped the condemnation of marriage? The Saviour undid this too, since he loves humanity. By his presence, he, the desire and joy of all, has honoured marriage in order to drive out the ancient grief of childbearing. ‘For if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old has gone,’ as Paul says, ‘and has become new (2 Cor 5.17).’ So he comes to the wedding together with his disciples.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary On Jn 2.1-4.
St. Cyril of Alexandria beautifully weaves together the wedding feast, the water turning into wine and the overcoming of the sentence of Eve. At the feast wherein Christ takes still, dead water and turns it into living wine, we see the overturning of the birth into death to a birth into the Life of Christ. With regard to acedia, this points us to the remembrance of death that orients us towards the Kingdom, rather than one which binds us with fear (Cf. Heb 2.15). We must not forget that one day we will die but our death will only be difficult and torturous if we have not already died to those things that bind me here and now. The desert fathers instructed their disciples in this way to combat acedia,
“Our saintly teacher [St. Macarius the Great] with his great experience in the practical life used to say: The monk must ever hold himself ready as though he were to die tomorrow, and in turn must treat the body as though he would have to live with it for many years. The first practice, he would say, cuts off the thoughts of acedia and makes the monk more zealous; the latter keeps the body healthy and always maintains its abstinence in balance.” Evagrius, Praktikos, 29
The monks were not out to ravage their bodies, nor should we try to do this. Instead we must contemplate death as though we would be cut off from those things we think we might find pleasure in (my ‘creature comforts’) while ensuring that we attend to the needs of the body. Bunge again illuminates this saying,
“What is meant by this ‘practice at dying’ emerges clearly from the text. Having its secret roots in self-love, despondency is, if nothing else, the expression of an exaggerated and unhealthy valuation of earthly, material life and its inevitable vicissitudes and misfortunes. In the place of this, the ‘practice at dying’ instructs us that we do not have our true homeland here. It teaches us to evaluate the realities of this life dispassionately and to live accordingly. The second half of the saying teaches us that this entirely conscious ‘living for the moment of death’ is nevertheless carried out simultaneously with a thoroughly healthy will for life.” Despondency, Bunge, p113.
Thus, our knowledge of our mortality is no longer a reason for enslavement or neurosis but rather a call to value things according to reality not illusion. Christ has destroyed death so that we no longer fear the cutting off of those things that appeal to me. I do not need to procure the latest iPhone, the sleekest shoes, the most luxurious clothing, the most lavish jewellery, the flashiest car or the grandest home because we see clearly that we do not have life in these things. It is only by practicing at this vision, by trying to cut off our attachments, that we come to destroy despondency in us. Otherwise we might as well find the next distraction hoping that in it we might have life.
Adam and Eve, instructed to persevere in their work and given the knowledge of mortality, are given the tools to defeat the acedia that had defeated them in the garden. We too would do well to learn these insights that we might overcome the hamster-wheel of distraction, sin, boredom and agitation.
“This temptation [of acedia] draws the monk to relax his efforts and ultimately to abandon his commitment to the monastic life. Overcome by dissatisfaction with his manual labour, with his cell, and with his spiritual practice, he finds himself constantly distracted whether at work or at prayer. Readily will he relieve the boredom with a visit to the sick or the performance of a service for a brother. The monastic life appears like such a lengthy and unnecessarily harsh undertaking, when surely one could live a good life in the world. Evagrius counsels that at such times the monk must exercise perseverance and patient endurance, while committing himself to the regular, attentive exercise of his daily tasks of manual labour and prayer. Above all he must remain seated in his cell and reject all temptation to abandon it” Sinkewicz, Robert E. Evagrius of Pontus: the Greek ascetic corpus. OUP Oxford, 2006. Pg XXX
“Acedia is a prolonged movement of irascibility [the anger faculty] and desire at the same time: the former displays anger over what is present and the latter shows longing for what is not. It is a drowsiness of the rational soul, neglect of the virtues and of the knowledge of God; it is a sleep of the rational soul and a wilful separation from true life. Wherefore the wise Solomon exhorts one “not to give sleep to the eyes nor drowsiness to the eyelids” (Prov. 6:4).’” Sinkewicz, Robert E. Evagrius of Pontus: the Greek ascetic corpus. OUP Oxford, 2006. Commentary on Praktikos 22, pg 251
In the first passage above, re-read it while substituting whatever words apply to your state of life (be it married, single, with child, working, serving, etc) for the words monastic and monk.
In the age of the cell phone, instant information, constant updates and never-ending distraction, we would do well to heed the words of our forebears regarding the noon-day demon. We hate the present moment and yearn for the next one, only to hate that moment in turn. Soon we grow agitated, anxious, and dejected that life holds no meaning for me anymore. God instructs Adam and Eve that the way to combat this particularly dangerous thought is by persisting in our work and through the remembrance of death-that we live for more than the next moment we yearn for. It is only by putting these things into practice that we can actually grow to present ourselves to each other and to God in the here and now. We practice at these things through the repetition we are given in the life of The Church. Standing at your icon corner, reading when you would prefer to fall asleep, going to Church when Sunday is your only day ‘to yourself’ are some of the ways in which we are being educated against acedia. With eyes open to his designs, we may begin to notice acedia assailing at many and varied times when we would not have expected it. Again though, the message of Evagrius is one of hope, for if we persist with our struggle we shall be granted victory,
“No other demon follows immediately after this one: a state of peace and ineffable joy ensues in the soul after this struggle.” Evagrius, Praktikos 12
So much here. I didn’t do it justice on a first reading. I always learn from the depth of your research. Thank you and best wishes, Michael
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Glory to God! Your comments are always encouraging and it is inspirational to see you employ this beauty in your poetry 🙂
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I wonder if we are describing acedia today when we use words like “depression” and “anxiety”. And so I wonder if there is good advice here from the wisdom you quote for Christians suffering from anxiety or depression. A complicated area. I wonder if you’ve given it much thought?
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I think your insight is spot on. There is good evidence to say that the drug companies have done a great job making us believe that depression can serve as a catch-all for a vast array of normal human emotion which we then medicate. If we take sin to be a destructive mode of life then it shouldn’t surprise us that acedia with all its ‘depressive symptoms’ fits into that constructs and draws us from our telos – life in Union with God. I hope to write more about this in the future. Your insights and comments are so valuable 🙂
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Mmmm. Drugs are proscribed which dampen the pain – perhaps some people do need this help temporarily. But the pain won’t go away and must be confronted, in my experience. This is a journey but is liberating in the long run – spiritually liberating – because we can be freed from our fear of pain and our fear of the past. We can learn that both pain and our past won’t destroy us. And so we learn strength to face anything, with God’s grace. How hard for people who do not have God to draw on, though. Good to share thoughts about this. Best wishes and I look forward to reading future posts, which I always learn from. Michael
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Amazing article. To add on to the thoughts expressed here, this study does well to discard the popular narrative surrounding the most prescribed antidepressants:
From the article:
These sentiments were voiced by Lord Warner, United Kingdom Health Minister, at a recent hearing: “…I have some concerns that sometimes we do, as a society, wish to put labels on things which are just part and parcel of the human condition”
I think this idea adds credibility to the Christian thesis that the human condition, specifically surrounding the study of the psyche and its “illnesses”, cannot be be reduced to a functionally empiricist philosophical framework which is popular in many Christian circles today.
My dear friend,
I think you are spot on. Bio-reductionism is based on the empiricist lie that says I am nothing other than what it stored in the small space in my skull. It flies directly in the face of the Gospel and cannot be intelligible to one who believes in a soul.
Medically speaking you may be interested in the work Irving Kirsch has done;
– There is a follow-up study which is even more interesting
2. The myth of Neurotransmitter imbalances has also fortunately come under some scrutiny. You can see from this paper (Kirsch is a co-author but Joanna Moncrieff is the lead author);
Here is that study’s conclusion;
“The main areas of serotonin research provide no consistent evidence of there being an association between serotonin and depression, and no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations.”
Thank you for your interesting comment and I look forward to hearing more about it from you
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Thank you for the resources on this topic, I am currently writing a paper against SSRIs for my Pharmacology class and the thesis I am attempting to demonstrate is precisely that. The presupposition of bioreductionism and the prescription of ineffective treatments accordingly, when practices essentially borrowing from Christian praxis show more significant therapeutic effects, is inherently anti-Christian and in turn, detrimental to human health.